Who will be held responsible for these crimes at sea?

The stretch of land connecting Turkey to Europe has long been a zone of migratory transit, and historically was the main route by which early humans coming from the “fertile crescent” of the Middle East—meaning present day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan—brought knowledge of farming and agriculture to the west. 1 The modern concept of borders, and the even more nascent prioritization of closing them, has not only changed the way we trade goods and ideologies, but it feeds a kind of primitive tribalism that allows for certain societal groups to determine who lives and who dies. 

Description: Map displaying the land/river border connecting Turkey and Greece (highlighted in red) and the land/river border connecting Turkey and Bulgaria (highlighted in orange)

The stretch of land connecting Turkey to Europe has long been a zone of migratory transit, and historically was the main route by which early humans coming from the “fertile crescent” of the Middle East—meaning present day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan—brought knowledge of farming and agriculture to the west. 1 The modern concept of borders, and the even more nascent prioritization of closing them, has not only changed the way we trade goods and ideologies, but it feeds a kind of primitive tribalism that allows for certain societal groups to determine who lives and who dies. 

In 2012, the Greek government and the European Border agency, Frontex, collaborated to seal off this stretch of land, which was considered to be the leak in the faucet allowing thousands of migrants to emigrate into the west. The 130 km long area connecting Turkey and Greece’s Evros region is mostly riverbed with a few points of land connection. The European Union (EU) first lined the land with a human wall of nearly 2,000 border guards, but it soon became a 3.0 m tall barrier of barbed wire and fence. Turkey’s 269 km border with Bulgaria was also soon closed off by a similar fence fortified with razor wire coils.

Since then, many migrants choose to travel to Europe by sea. 

Description: Map displaying the principal migratory routes from Turkey to Greece by sea—Lesvos, Samos, Chios, and Kos.

The Aegean Sea is as vast as it is profound. It is as cold as it is temperamental. And it is no secret that taking this route puts a person’s life at risk. According to official numbers, at least 1,664 people 2 have either been found dead or gone missing at sea since the EU-Turkey land border fence was erected. Unofficial numbers due to underreporting could be much higher. Not only is crossing the sea treacherous in and of itself, seemingly systemic abuse from the coast guard further endangers migrants’ lives. In 2014, PRO ASYL published a report citing incidents of refugees being held at gunpoint by the coast guard, beaten from masked men in black clothing, or robbed by those in uniform claiming to help them. 3 The report also mentions incidences where the Greek Coast Guard conducted risky maneuvers resulting in people falling overboard: 

“Suddenly a boat of the Greek coast guard appeared. They started encircling our dinghy and making waves. Then they rammed [our boat] on purpose from the left side. Our boat took on a lot of water. When they left us in the Turkish waters they made waves again and six of us—all men—fell into the sea. The Greeks saw that, but they didn’t help, they just left.” – a lawyer from Syria (September 2013)4

Prior to the 2016 EU-Turkey Deal, 5 the Turkish Coast Guard had a more lackadaisical policy of border security for those departing via the Aegean. The Deal provides a €6 billion financial incentive for Turkish authorities to have a more abrasive presence and intervene in migration routes that lead to Europe. The EU and IOM have provided the Turkish Coast Guard with operations trainings and eight search and rescue (SAR) vessels to prevent more refugees from crossing to Greece. 6 The EU’s response of militarization, securitization, and border patrol outsourcing has resulted in a superfluity of human rights violations. 

Underreporting incidents of abuse by the Greek and Turkish Coast Guards at sea is a natural result of any psychological trauma that may have been endured, but also, it is a means of self-protection for migrants; everyone is afraid that speaking out about human rights violations will negatively affect the outcome of their asylum applications. Put simply, most people are afraid to publicly condemn the same Greek government that holds the power to grant them access to Europe. In a similar light, those waiting to hear whether or not they will be deported back to Turkey are afraid to speak out against the unruly Turkish government.

What we do know, is that thus far in 2019, 58,157 people 7 have been stopped by the Turkish Coast Guard in their attempt to cross the Aegean Sea. What we don’t know, is how many people have been victims of border force brutality during those encounters. Whispers within the camps lead us to believe there are many. 

On September 8, 2019, a video surfaced on Facebook of the Turkish Coast Guard hitting migrants with metal rods, as they were aboard a rubber dinghy attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece. Researchers from Mare Liberum were able to contact—after they were released from Turkish prison—some of those that were on the dinghy that morning who witnessed the attacks. The person that filmed the video, a Syrian man we will call Akil*, confirms that it was taken on Thursday September 5th, a few days prior, via Instagram live and therefore the original video is no longer attainable. 

Akil describes his attempted cross to Greece [translated from Arabic]: “We started moving and departed from the Turkish shores at 6:00am. After moving for a while, we entered international waters and we saw the Greek Coast Guard not far ahead of us. We began to approach them and called them for help. They told us that they couldn’t do anything for us because the Turkish Coast Guard was also within sight, and they cannot intervene when they are near. We kept moving towards the Greek Coast Guard, but the Turkish Coast Guard arrived and blocked us from continuing. They [the Turkish Coast Guard] started beating us with metal rods on our heads, even children, even women.” 

Description: Screenshot taken from Akil’s video

Violence from the Turkish Coast Guard was most visible in the news back in 2015 and 2016 8 when the so called “refugee crisis” still held the world’s attention. But nowadays these types of human rights abuses are among the many that continue to persist without consideration or action from any government. 

Akil continues: “They didn’t manage to stop our motor so they called another smaller Turkish speed boat which was very fast and came extremely close to us. Someone from our boat managed to destroy the motor of the speed boat, and the entire time the Turkish were shouting at us. Another larger boat approached us, so now there are two large coast guard ships surrounding us. At this point, a Palestinian guy took out a knife and put it to his own neck, and he said that he would commit suicide if they take him back to Turkey. They ignored him and took all of the people onboard. Now there are three guys in court, the migrant boat driver, the guy who damaged the smaller Turkish speed boat, and the Palestinian guy, because they said that he threatened the coast guard with a weapon even though he didn’t.” 

After verifying the events unfolding in the video, Mare Liberum started reaching out to recent migrant arrivals to begin documenting testimonials and report on the pervasiveness of the problem. Many asylum seekers have taken multiple attempts to cross from Turkey to Greece, meaning most have had some kind of encounter with the Turkish Coast Guard bringing them back to Turkey. We met with a young Palestinian man, Abdullah,* who only managed to cross to Greece on his twelfth try. 

Abdullah explains: “During one attempt, this past April, we had made it all the way to Greek waters, and NATO pushed us back into Turkish waters for the Turkish Coast Guard to pick us up. We couldn’t tell what kind of flag was on the ship because it was very dark, but it looked like a large grey military boat. The boat had a lot of cannons. I could tell it was not the Turkish Coast Guard because of the language the officers spoke. Some people on our boat spoke Turkish, they were not speaking Turkish. It maybe sounded like German. They were all in uniform and wearing masks. They were yelling at us and they took our fuel, hitting us aggressively. After yelling and cursing at us, they put a rope on our boat and took us to the Turkish Coast Guard.” 

It is important to note that Abdullah described the boat as being a vessel which could be either a NATO vessel, a Greek Navy vessel, or a vessel from the Hellenic coast guard that looks like a warship, all ships that have been actively patrolling the Aegean this year. Though the F220 German Warship “Hamburg” was present, it is possible that Abdullah misidentified the assailants as being from a NATO ship. What is important, is that this clearly is not a Turkish Coast Guard vessel, signifying that the migrant boat had likely entered international waters. This would constitute a “push back”, which is an unlawful maneuver under international law—in violation of both the prohibition of collective expulsion and the principle of non-refoulment. For those working on the ground, it is widely known that this type of illegal activity is happening in the Aegean, but it is very difficult to prove due to a lack of concrete evidence. 

Once refugees manage to arrive to the island of Lesvos, the majority of people end up in the infamous Moria camp. Moria is the largest camp on the island, currently housing more than 14,000 refugees. Housing, in this context, is a loose term, seeing as extreme overcrowding leaves many people hungry and tentless. Moria is often described by its occupants as “hell on earth”.

In Moria, Mare Liberum sat down with a Syrian couple that described their four attempts at crossing to Greece. During the third effort, they too experienced a “push back”. The husband explains: “As we were in the water a ship came, took us from the Greek waters and brought us back over to Turkish waters. We know we were in international waters because we saw the Greek shoreline, it was so close to us. We were almost there. And also, a young man on our boat was watching the GPS, and he told us all that we were out of the Turkish waters.” 

His wife explains: “The Greek Coast Guard came, shut down the motor, and took the fuel. They started making huge waves. Everyone was screaming and tons of water was coming into the boat. A woman held up her baby to show them that they need to be careful with the waves but they continued anyway, without care or concern. Another woman was so close to suicide because she was so scared. She was about to jump out of the boat but we managed to hold her back. Of course, she can’t swim.” 

Once the Greek Coast Guard is able to push the migrant boat back into Turkish waters, the migrants are not only robbed of their right to asylum in Greece, but they are left vulnerable to the abuses of the Turkish Coast Guard. “The Turkish yell and beat you and insult you. Every time you get caught you get beaten,” Abdullah continues, “They call you ‘cowards’, a ‘son of bitch’ saying that you are a sell out for leaving your country and trying to go to Europe. Sometimes the same coast guard members catch you and recognize you, and they intensify the beatings. ‘You are still trying?’ they yell. If you try to film the abuses, the coast guard will jump on you and hit you excessively, trying to take your phone or knock the phone into the water.”

The closed Facebook group @call122 9 formed for those victims of coast guard abuse who are brave enough to semi-publicly publish evidence. This way of documentation is critical for preserving content online before the phone is destroyed or footage is intentionally deleted from the device by the authorities. This group also posts, primarily in Arabic, weather condition updates for those attempting to cross, missing persons posters, and updates on those that are either found alive or corpses washed ashore. All of the above materials could potentially be used to build a case against the routinely abusive practices of the Turkish Coast Guard. Considering the lack of precise geo-location data points, however, proving the guilt of the Greek Coast Guard would be much more difficult. 

Testimonials from NGOs working on the island are the most valuable sources of eye-witness evidence to argue against the Greek Coast Guard’s practices. Lighthouse Relief, a spotting organization in the Aegean, and Refugee Rescue, a search and rescue team, published a joint press release announcing their sighting of an illegal pull back on July 2nd of this year. During a search and rescue operation, the team witnessed a rubber dinghy filled with migrants in the sea approaching Greece, so they sent out their rescue RHIB in order to assist in the event of an emergency. The Turkish coast Guard also approached the dinghy, but rather than assist the people to safety, their ship crossed into Greek waters and instead put the migrants at greater risk. 

Giannis Skenderoglou, Refugee Rescue Boat crew coordinator, describes that “The dinghy had just entered Greek waters when the Turkish Coast Guard (TCG) started to approach from the East. The dinghy didn’t stop and turned, heading eastwards, in an attempt to evade the TCG vessel. The TCG vessel began circling the dinghy, causing high waves, which could have easily capsized the small rubber boat. At this point, the refugees began screaming in panic; we could hear their screams. Then, by colliding with the dinghy on the starboard side, they forced the dinghy back into Turkish territorial waters. After more life-threatening maneuvering, the coast guard officers began violently throwing their ropes at the passengers of the dinghy in an attempt to injure and distress them. After that, two people jumped in the water in a desperate attempt to evade being brought back to Turkey. They too were screaming…“ 

Describing the same incident, a Lighthouse Relief spotting team leader commented that the “TCG employed an aggressive, hard approach…the team was shocked by the behavior they witnessed. Based on our experience and training as spotters, we feel confident in stating that the dinghy had crossed the border and was pulled back from Greek waters.” These official statements are crucial for combatting abuse, yet they are done sparingly due to both logistical and bureaucratic complications. The Refugee Rescue RHIB is not permitted to cross into Turkish waters, and at times it may not be close enough to the scene of an incident to see exactly what the Turkish Coast Guard is doing. 

Additionally, these two NGOs put themselves and their operations at risk if they report something that the Greek Coast Guard wouldn’t want publicized. Refugee Rescue’s ability to deploy its RHIB and facilitate the rescue and safe arrival of migrants within Greek waters is only possible with the prior permission of the Greek Coast Guard. Each time the RHIB is deployed, they must first wait for approval. If the Greek Coast Guard were to deny their permission to launch, the migrants in distress would be the ones that consequentially suffer the most. 

Overarchingly, there is a grave lack of tangible evidence, little willingness to report abuses, and nearly no political will to investigate the human rights abuses taking place in the Aegean Sea. Furthermore, the path towards accountability is remarkably unclear. On October 23rd at 4:45am off the shores of Kos, an inflatable Hellenic Coast Guard collided with a boat of migrants traveling from Turkey. Upon impact, all 34 people aboard the migrant dinghy fell into the water. Six migrants were injured. One person is still missing. A 3-year-old boy was found dead. There is no indication that any penalties or retribution will be imposed on those who were aboard the coast guard vessel. 

Who will be held responsible for these crimes and in which court of law? Will the blurred boundaries of jurisdiction continue to protect the assailants? And will the European Union ever bother to care? As the list of unresolved questions grows longer, so does the death toll of the current EU border policy.

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